After hearing arguments in two cases on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on two cases that could be landmark decisions on whether government can display the Ten Commandments on public grounds.
Concerned Women for America—one of a number of religious right groups supporting the Commandments–was “cautiously optimistic” the high court would uphold the constitutionality of public displays of the Ten Commandments.
“The Supreme Court should be able to see straight through the bogus arguments of special interest groups whose only motivation appears to be erasing any recognition of God from our public life,” Jan LaRue, CWA’s chief counsel, said in a statement. “Setting the Ten Commandments on public display is an acknowledgement of the cultural and legal history of the United States. It is light years from establishing a national church, which is what the First Amendment prohibits.”
Some 275 members of a Baptist congregation in Kentucky that supports the Ten Commandments displays chartered a bus to Washington so they could pray in front of the Supreme Court, according to Voice of America.
“It is important to us that the Ten Commandments be posted,” said Carter Stewart, the Baptist minister who led the delegation. “Number one, simply because it is the word of God and we feel that our nation is founded on the principles of God and Christianity.”
Another Baptist pastor outside the Supreme Court, Kermit Phillips, traveled 13 hours by bus from Tennessee to ask God to uphold the displays, which he said honor “part of the foundation of our country.”
Phillips told the New York Sun he was confident that his entreaties had been heard. “God always hears our prayers,” he said. However, “He doesn’t always answer them the way we want.”
As the Supreme Court prepared to hear arguments in the cases, First Baptist Church in Brewton, Ala., held a 24-hour prayer vigil.
“We decided the best thing that we could do was to have people praying before and during the time the cases were being presented,” Ron Headley, associate pastor of the church, told the The Brewton Standard.
The two cases could affect dozens of lower court decisions across the country on whether posting the Ten Commandments on public property violates the First Amendment.
In one case, Van Orden v. Perry, a lower court ruled that a 6-foot-high granite Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol does not violate the First Amendment. The 42-year-old monument, one of thousands placed around the country in the 1950s and 1960s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, is constitutional, the court ruled, because a reasonable person would not conclude its placement was intended to endorse religion rather than a secular message.
The other, McCreary County v. ACLU, involves two Kentucky counties and a school district, which erected framed copies of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses and schools, and later modified the displays to include secular and historical documents to insulate them from a lawsuit. In that case the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the displays removed, agreeing with a lower court that their “predominate purpose” was religious.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life compiled a “legal backgrounder” of the two Ten Commandment cases and published a transcript of a recent debate between Douglas Laycock of University of Texas School of Law and Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice, lawyers on opposite sides of the dispute, on the organization’s Web site.
Some evangelical Christians view the debate over the Commandments as part of a larger agenda to have government recognize religion.
“The real issue is the right to acknowledge God,” Jody Hice, a Baptist pastor in Georgia said in USA Today. Hice is leading a fund-raising effort in Barrow County, Ga., to help the county defend its display of a Ten Commandments plaque in the local courthouse against a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
But others who also revere the Ten Commandments don’t believe it is the role of government to enforce them.
Johnie Hammond, a former Iowa state senator and a long-time member of First Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa, described why she opposed public displays of the Ten Commandments in a column in the Des Moines Register.
“We do a disservice to our legal system, our traditions and religion when we pretend the state has a role to play in imposing religious law,” Hammond said. “I respect the Ten Commandments, and I try to obey them. But I’m thankful that the job of enforcing most of them is left to religious leaders and not government officials.”
Observers believe what the high court decides could help redefine the role of religion in America.
Pat Trueman, senior legal council for Family Research Council, said he was encouraged that most justices seemed reluctant to suggest the Ten Commandments are inappropriate given the nation’s religious heritage.
“I would be surprised if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Ten Commandments displays in question violate the U.S. Constitution,” Trueman said.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is expected to be a swing vote in whatever the justices decide, described her dilemma, quoted by the Associated Press. “It’s so hard to draw that line,” she said. “If the legislature can open its own sessions attended by the public with a prayer, you say it cannot, in the same building, display the Ten Commandments.”
“That’s right,” Erwin Chemerinsky, attorney for man seeking removal of the Texas display, replied. “because the message from the government is quite different.”
Legislative prayers recognize “a long historical practice,” he said, “But when it comes to the Ten Commandments, it really is different than even a legislative prayer. This declares not only there is a God, but that God has proclaimed rules for behavior. The Ten Commandments come from sacred texts.”
More than three quarters of Americans favor displaying the Ten Commandments on the grounds of government buildings, according to a recent Associated Press poll.
A separate CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll on the particular display at the Texas Capitol reported similar findings, with 76 percent of respondents in favor and 21 percent opposed.
The religious community is divided over the issue. Jewish groups, while regarding the Ten Commandments as the center of their faith, oppose the public displays, while many conservative Christians are leading the charge for their support.
The Baptist Joint Committee filed briefs in both cases opposing the monuments. Television preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, on the other hand, have been at the forefront of defending posting of the Ten Commandments.
Falwell, despite recovering from a bout of pneumonia, called on churches to observe last Sunday as “Ten Commandments Sunday,” launching a cycle of national prayer aimed at the Supreme Court hearing on March 2.
“It behooves the Church of Jesus Christ to earnestly get our knees to pray that the Ten Commandments are not eliminated from the American public square,” Falwell wrote. “I am calling on churches around the nation to participate in the Ten Commandments Sunday.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, meanwhile, which in 1997 passed a resolution supporting public displays of the Ten Commandments in government offices and courthouses, stayed on the fence. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed SBC spokesman as saying the denomination figured activist groups could handle the pro-displays cause and the SBC wasn’t asked to endorse their briefs.
Columnist Cal Thomas noted the irony that Christians are pushing for posting the Ten Commandments, through which they believe no one can be saved, and wondered why they wouldn’t instead lobby for their favorite verse, John 3:16.
“What puzzles me is the extent to which those who want government to endorse their faith seem ready to compromise their true beliefs in order to receive an honorable mention from the state,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas said the courts “have been wrong for at least a half a century” in limiting religious expression, but the “way to win back that right of expression is not mainly through courts, but through hearts.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaiy.com.